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Has Curiosity Made an ‘Earth-Shaking’ Discovery?

This image was taken by Front Hazcam onboard NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity on Sol 102 (2012-11-18 21:41:54 UTC). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Mars Science Laboratory team has hinted that they might have some big news to share soon. But like good scientists, they are waiting until they verify their results before saying anything definitive. In an interview on NPR today, MSL Principal Investigator John Grotzinger said a recent soil sample test in the SAM instrument (Sample Analysis at Mars) shows something ‘earthshaking.’

“This data is gonna be one for the history books,” he said. “It’s looking really good.”

What could it be?

SAM is designed to investigate the chemical and isotopic composition of the Martian atmosphere and soil. In particular, SAM is looking for organic molecules, which is important in the search for life on Mars. Life as we know it cannot exist without organic molecules; however, they can exist without life. SAM will be able to detect lower concentrations of a wider variety of organic molecules than any other instrument yet sent to Mars.

As many scientists have said, both the presence and the absence of organic molecules would be important science results, as both would provide important information about the environmental conditions of Gale Crater on Mars.

But something ‘Earthshaking’ or “really good” probably wouldn’t be a nil result.

Already, the team has found evidence for huge amounts of flowing water in Gale Crater.

A detailed look at the layers on Aeolis Mons/Mt. Sharp, the central mound inside Gale Crater, the Curiosity rover’s ultimate destination. Credit: NASA/Caltech-JPL/MSSS

If SAM does find organic material, the next step would be to determine the origin and the nature of preservation of the molecules. But the team is going to wait until they verify whatever it is they found.

As NPR’s Joe Palca says in his report, “They have some exciting new results from one of the rover’s instruments. On the one hand, they’d like to tell everybody what they found, but on the other, they have to wait because they want to make sure their results are not just some fluke or error in their instrument.”

The team is being cautious because of their experience with looking for methane in the Martian air. When one of the SAM instruments analyzed an air sample, they got a reading of methane. But, it turned out, they were likely measuring some of the air that was brought along from Florida, as air leaked into the Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS) while the spacecraft was awaiting launch. The initial readings from the TLS, full of methane, were very exciting to the Curiosity scientists until they realized it was from Earth.

But NPR reports that Grotzinger says it will take several weeks before he and his team are ready to talk about their latest finding.

In the meantime there will likely be much speculation as everyone is excited about the prospects of life – past or present – on Mars. Either would have astounding implications.


Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today's Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT's Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jeffrey Scott Boerst November 21, 2012, 8:40 PM

    NASA needs to wait until December 21st if it actually is a life (now/then) deal and announce it with the Caveat, “The Mayans were right. There was a huge change in our concepts about our place in the Universe… AND SCIENCE MADE IT HAPPEN!! “

  • LochGates44 November 21, 2012, 4:32 PM

    It’s already agreed to join the Big 10.

  • Jeffrey Scott Boerst November 21, 2012, 11:35 PM

    There are far more than one perspective and this would be something that touches every single person that’s ever existed, if you like it or not and especially once more info (again, if it is what is hoped) comes in per similar or exotic abiogenisis to our own, then that FAR outshadows and on a grand perspective anyone’s death for any reason. Get a grip on scope for the love of Zod (General).

  • Michael Walsh November 22, 2012, 1:37 AM

    GOD! Obama supporter, Romney supporter, left, right….give it a break!

    • Charles French November 22, 2012, 2:13 PM

      I agree enough of the with the politics and labeling. Lol “Egghead” on science site??? Please take your “I have to take a jab in ever post – insert political class -” to 4 channel. Its old, tired and adds nothing but seething hatred and bitterness to the discussion.

  • Michael MacConnell November 22, 2012, 2:12 AM

    I stopped paying attention the last time one of these eggheads tried to hype a discovery and it turned out to be utterly banal nerdbabble.

    You would have thought someone would have warned them against this crying wolf nonsense. Pretty soon people will begin to rightly ask WHY we are wasting so much money on this stuff, when it could otherwise be used by democrats to bribe more interest/identity groups.

    • Torbjörn Larsson November 22, 2012, 6:55 AM

      You are missing the content of the original article. It was _the journalist_ that tried to hype what came out of an ordinary interview.

      A NASA spokesman has been forced to come out and explain as much. They are well aware that hype is damaging, even when they are not the source of said hype.

      Science is never a waste of money, it is among the best ROI use of money you can think of. But one can seldom predict what specific work will pay off, instead we know it is mutually reinforcing.

  • Nivan Mal November 22, 2012, 2:41 AM

    human origin —> mars. Period!!! if thats the earth-shaking news..

    • Torbjörn Larsson November 22, 2012, 6:50 AM

      Not likely, neither Earth life originating on Mars (and humans alone are ruled out by ancestry) nor Curiosity being able to find any such evidence. The experiments can’t sequence DNA for example.

  • Harsha V November 22, 2012, 5:55 AM

    they mostly found evidence of Stromatolites

    • Torbjörn Larsson November 22, 2012, 6:47 AM

      On early Earth? Sure.

      On Mars? Not yet.

  • Torbjörn Larsson November 22, 2012, 6:44 AM

    The fun is over. A NASA spokesman was forced to come out and explain that Grotzinger was excited about the performance of the SAM, and indeed the whole Curiosity instrument suite.

    “John was delighted about the quality and range of information coming in from SAM during the day a reporter happened to be sitting in John’s office last week. He has been similarly delighted by results at other points during the mission so far,” spokesman Guy Webster told AFP.

    It is the mission and its data quality that is “for the history books”. Not any specific result.

    [ADDED AFTER POSTING] Another exposition here.

  • Will November 22, 2012, 10:35 AM

    I hope it’s a real big one this time. If they found organic molecules in Mars that would really excite me but if they will just confirm that water once existed there it would be a baloney to let us wait for weeks.

  • AugustineThomas November 22, 2012, 7:51 PM

    That’s funny how you assumed an obvious typo was me truly believing that “capsulize” means to capitalize a letter.

    Way to make yourself look like an idiot trying to make me look like an idiot.

    You shouldn’t wrestle with a pig sun…(pig like to get dirty).

  • Steve Kruckheimmer November 26, 2012, 7:45 PM

    Scientists and journalists have got to stop desribing things as “historical”. Because, technically, EVERYTHING is historical! It’s the most redundant word in the English language. Rather than say that something is historical, or “for the history books”, just state it’s significance. Otherwise it’s just an easy way to get attention for something that doesn’t deserve it.

  • StanChaz November 28, 2012, 9:53 AM

    Just between you and me,
    I have inside information:
    They found a,,,,, TWINKIE!!
    Just kididng,
    What they actually found was a live cockroach.
    They survive ANYWHERE.
    And they’ll be around long long after we’re gone.

  • Singularity November 30, 2012, 7:22 PM

    I think it would be pretty safe to say that I am the only one who sees how hilarious it is that a conversation that was sparked by an unreleased piece of information coming from NASA turned into a debate over theology? Lol maybe we are meant to become extinct at the hands of robots simply because of our inability to see anything past our own mortality.

  • test test December 3, 2012, 4:24 PM

    It’s possible they found “something” But with the coverups in place.. you’ll never know for a long long time.

  • test test December 4, 2012, 12:15 AM

    swamp gas.. Doesn’t surprise me.